Reading by 9/3/02

July 25, 2002

A NOTICE announcing Baltimore City schools' summer reading program arrived by mail last week, advertising both the district's good intentions and its bad timing.

The letter calls on every city student to read six books before school resumes Sept. 3. Quick glance at the calendar: That's a book a week; get busy.

The letter from Chief Academic Officer Cassandra W. Jones blames "mail delays" for the school system's failure to deliver summer reading kits to schools back in June, when students could have had a running start. Students attending summer school for remedial work received the lists; the letter ensured that all others would be informed of the requirement, Ms. Jones told reporters.

What's most galling, though, is that the recent letter arrived without the reading lists and accompanying book logs and comprehension questions for students to complete. To obtain these, the letter says, a student should visit his or her neighborhood school, the public library or the city schools' Web site. The program's already delayed, so why add hurdles?

The lists for each grade include award-winning books, fiction and nonfiction, diverse ideas and topics: There should be no complaint with the content. High schoolers can choose from among 16 suggested titles, including Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country, Richard Wright's Native Son and Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff. The second-grade list includes Raising Dragons by Jerdine Nolen, Olivia Saves the Circus by Ian Falconer and Pumpkin Soup by Helen Cooper.

Born of good intentions - most notably, the school system's desire to align its reading standards with Maryland's - the summer reading program is a fine idea hobbled by poor planning.

Compliance, this late in the summer, now depends upon the resources and conscientiousness of the parent or guardian, and the reliability of the U.S. Postal Service.

Better late than never? That's a sad comment on school reform.

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